A man living in a crane? Imported sand? We test the UAE's urban legends

John Henzell explores the best urban legends to uncover those cases where the truth gets in the way of a good story.

Did you hear the one about the UAE importing sand? Or that the Abu Dhabi Police’s fleet of response vehicles includes a custom bike made by Orange County Choppers?

It’s no surprise that the UAE, with its broad vision and big budgets, has become something of a magnet for urban myths, those slightly far-fetched (but potentially true) tales passed on by a friend of someone who claims to be in the know. And especially when both those examples cited above turn out to be true.

Chances are that the first time most non-residents heard about the UAE involved some kind of superlative that turned out to be real: Ski Dubai, where you can ski the slopes when it’s 40 degrees outside; the Palm Jumeirah and The World, archipelagos that have been created in the Arabian Gulf in the shape of trees and continents; Emirates Palace’s ATM that dispenses gold bars; the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall, the tallest and biggest of their kind in the world and even the existence of an ice hockey league in the UAE.

All of which makes it easier for some to believe similarly fantastical but false tales which, thanks to the internet, spread like wildfire until they have been repeated so frequently they reach the point of being the accepted truth. That human trait of believing the far-fetched over the verifiable, particularly if it confirms pre-held prejudices, comes despite the internet providing an equally efficient method of testing the accuracy of the claims propagated on it. Several websites specialise in the task, the most famous of which is snopes.com, which cites more than 100 urban legends involving Arab nations, including more than a dozen from the UAE. Here are 10 of our favourite tall stories, together with our verdict on whether they are true or false.

Paying for sand

Importing sand to the Emirates sounds like shipping coal to Newcastle. But while the UAE is not short of sand, most of it has a high salt content that makes it inappropriate for construction use. The poster child for this practice is Bena, a company based in Musaffah, which ships sand from Saudi Arabia because its high silica content makes it ideal to make precast aerated concrete.

Yas Island Metro station

According to one story, the crescent of hotels next to the Yas Marina Circuit is located over a fully built train station, ready for when the Abu Dhabi Metro is built. One reason why this has spread so far is the train-sized opening in the hotel precinct, but there’s just one catch: the Metro line won’t go past the hotels.

Burj Khalifa crane operator

Babu Sassi, the story went, lived in his crane while working atop what was then the Burj Dubai because it took too long to come down to earth each day to make it worthwhile. But every reference to this Keralan crane operator can be traced back to a single 2008 story in The Daily Telegraph and the piece failed to account for the fact that construction occurred 24 hours a day and that attempts by other journalists to find Sassi proved fruitless. At best, the story has been described by hoax-slayer.com as "unsubstantiated".

Dubai’s crane boom

Talking of cranes, one figure quoted so often that it took on the veneer of truth was that a quarter of the world’s cranes were once in Dubai. Origins of the claim vary, but construction industry insiders say the total number of tower cranes in the world at the height of the boom was between 100,000 and 150,000. At the most, Dubai had about 2,000 of them, putting the true figure at its peak closer to two per cent.

Twin Towers design on Iraqi Pepsi can

An American soldier serving in Iraq urged a boycott of all Pepsi products after finding what he saw as an insulting depiction of the Twin Towers and a commercial passenger jet on a can of Pepsi in the mess hall. The can was, indeed, designed and produced by Pepsi Arabia in the UAE but featured a stylised version of the Dubai skyline. Regardless, Pepsi issued a statement regretting the misinterpretation and later changed the design.

Stuffed camel recipe

According to legend, a Bedu recipe involved a camel ("medium size") that is then dressed and stuffed with a lamb, which in turn is stuffed with 20 chickens and then stuffed with 60 boiled eggs and then barbecued before being served to a crowd of 80 to 100. It was thought to be apocryphal, but a recipe for this meal was indeed published in 1983 in the Middle Eastern section of a cookbook named International Cuisine, although the recipe was attributed to Saudi Arabia rather than the UAE.

Abu Dhabi Police’s custom chopper

Eyebrows were raised when Orange County Choppers unveiled a bright red motorcycle equipped with a siren, flashing lights and an Abu Dhabi Police logo. The chopper was commissioned by the capital’s police but is designed for promotional use to forge closer bonds with Emirati youth.

Karama cheetah

Mysterious big cat sightings are a staple for many countries, with black panthers being reported in the wild everywhere from Somerset in England to Waimate in New Zealand. The UAE is no exception and last year a starving and injured cheetah was found trying to run down a chicken in the suburban streets of Karama in the capital.

Dubai park’s cobras

The story goes that when Safa Park in Dubai was improved in 1975 after the eviction of the illegal immigrants who used to be based there, the authorities imported topsoil from India to give the gardens a head start. And within a few days, workers noticed holes in the soil, followed by reports of being bitten because the imported soil had included thousands of cobra eggs that then hatched. No verification has emerged for this, which is the local variant of a long-running urban legend.

Mosque in the Burj Khalifa

News sources as normally robust as the BBC have reported that the Burj Khalifa holds the record for the world’s highest mosque in a building, supposedly sited on the 158th floor with another on the 76th floor. Except it turns out to be a tale as tall as the tower and there is not even one mosque in the building, let alone two.

John Henzell is a senior features writer at The National.